In Ava DuVernay’s When They See Us, your teen crush Pacey plays a lawyer representing a black adolescent wrongfully accused of a brutal rape. In a new interview, the actor perfectly summed up the insidious nature of racial blind spots.
Based on the heartbreaking true story of five teenagers of colour wrongfully convicted of the brutal rape of a woman jogging in Central Park in 1989, the miniseries unpicks the way the system was stacked against these adolescents from the start. When they were finally exonerated of their crime in 2002, after spending more than a decade behind bars, the five men were released. But it took them a further 12 years before they received a settlement from the city of New York for the years of their lives lost to unfair, unfounded jail time.
The case was the most talked-about true crime of the Nineties, a rape that shocked America and gripped the nation.
New Yorkers were afraid to walk in the park at night and Donald Trump – then just a loud-mouthed businessman in a bad suit – took out a full page advertisement in the newspaper demanding that the five boys receive the death penalty. At the time, those boys were all between the ages of 15 and 16 years old. Despite their convictions being vacated, Trump has never apologised and maintains their guilt, as does Linda Fairstein, the lawyer who led the prosecution.
Looking back, the case exposes just how much racial bias exists against young men of colour, particularly in the criminal justice system. And while working on the series Joshua Jackson, who plays a lawyer for one of the boys, and is the actor best known for being your teen crush Pacey on Dawson’s Creek realised just how insidious his own racial blind spots have been.
“It is so easy to be blind as a white person inside this society to the constant drumbeat of oppression against your skin,” Jackson said in a recent interview with Vibe. “I don’t have to touch it, I don’t have to feel it.”
He added that as a young man he experienced his own brushes with the law, moments when he was given the kind of benefit of the doubt that the teenagers in When They See Us were never given. Today, he added, “I can pass by a bunch of cops and they give me the head nod and the smile… Franky, success and fame change that as well.”
He continued: “The blind spot for me was being reminded that [black people] can’t take black off. There is no moment for you that you don’t have to deal with the reality of how you are being treated by the broader society, even if it’s not in that moment it’s a constant underlying white noise of your life.”
“That was the biggest blind spot I felt coming out of this,” Jackson added. “Being reminded again for these five young men that this was the backdrop of their life, even when they weren’t specifically engaged with it and in this moment their entire lives and innocence and youth were stolen from them just for the fact of this existence.”
DuVernay shared a clip of the interview on her own Twitter account, revealing that before meeting Jackson she had never worked with a white actor who was willing to engage in conversations about racial bias and blindspots.
“When I first met with [Jackson] I didn’t know what to expect,” the director tweeted. “Certainly not THIS. Had never had a convo like that with a white actor. He surprised me in the most unexpected, beautiful way. Reminds me to stay open. You never know what enlightened, empathetic humans you’ll find.”
Pacey fans, unite! Your teen crush just proved himself to be one of the most thoughtful actors working in Hollywood.
When They See Us streams on Netflix from 31 May.